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"Music Instills Power and Bravery": a conversation with Frontline Singer Anne Feeney
Delegates to UE’s 75th Convention in August were both inspired and entertained by Pittsburgh singer Anne Feeney. Feeney performed songs about corporate personhood (“corporations cannot pass the belly button test”), universal healthcare (“rich get richer and poor folks die”), and speedup in healthcare (“we are nursing as fast as we can”), which combine a passion for the struggles of working people with a sharp sense of humor.
Feeney grew up in Pittsburgh and has been a community and labor activist since the late 1960s. Since 1991 she has been a “frontline” singer, traveling across the country to sing at strikes, picket lines and rallies — wherever working people gather to fight for justice.
She received the Joe Hill Award from the Labor Heritage Foundation in 2005, joining past recipients including Cesar Chavez and Pete Seeger. She performed at the 1991 Solidarity Day march, the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, the 2004 March for Women’s Lives, and the 2011 occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol to protest the attacks on public sector workers’ unions.
The UE News spoke with Feeney after the convention about her life, her music and why singing together is important for the labor movement.
I can’t even imagine the civil rights movement without singing. I can’t imagine the early CIO days without singing. Music instills power and bravery. Those kids, sweating in those Alabama churches, singing We Shall Not Be Moved, then walking right out into a barrage of police dogs and fire hoses. It’s the music that allowed them to face all of that, and build the movement and change the world, in my opinion.
I played an IBEW regional conference in Traverse City and the director said “you know, when I was a young electrician we represented about 80% of the construction workforce and we started every meeting with a song and we ended singing Solidarity Forever. Now we represent about 12% of the construction market in Michigan and we don’t sing anymore and I think it’s time we started singing again.”
Singing builds solidarity. People recognize each other as brothers and sisters.
I love going to picket lines. I was the minister of culture to the Staley strike in central Illinois in Decatur. That strike went on for six years. I was also minister of culture to the Frontier Casino strike, and that was a six-year strike. I wrote a song called War on the Workers, because that’s what I saw - an attempt to roll back the New Deal, take everything back to the 19th century.
My grandfather was an organizer for the United Mineworkers, and when my dad was putting me to bed at night he’d tell me stories about the Coal and Iron Police and the miners’ encampments surrounded by barbed-wire, with machine gun turrets on the perimeter to keep union people out.
And my grandfather would slip under the barbed wire with his violin and start playing Croatian or Polish tunes, tunes from whatever country the workers were from, and once they were sure there were no scabs or stools (short for “stool pigeons,” or spies for the boss -ed.) in the room, then my grandfather would talk union and sign people up for the UMW.
I like being with people who have light behind their eyes, because they know what they want, they’re united, they’re organized, they’re idealistic and they believe in the power of solidarity. It’s very uplifting, it gives you a lot of energy and courage. And the music helps.
It will be a more exciting movement when labor arts and culture gets the respect it deserves from labor unions.
Anne Feeney at the People's Uprising at Wisconsin Capitol